Saturday, December 31, 2011

Movie Review: The Violent Years (1956)

This Christmas I received Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volumes XXI and XXII. My mother and I have made it a tradition to watch at least one MST3K episode whenever my parents visit. On their first night in town we watched the awful Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and on their last night we watched the juvenile delinquent film The Violent Years (1956) written by Ed Wood.

The plot of The Violent Years is somewhat similar to I Accuse My Parents (1944), which was also an MST3K subject. In both films, a teenager ends up in a life of crime due to his or her parents' "neglect". Both films include lengthy (and I mean lengthy) lectures from a judge, with the majority of the action occurring as flashbacks.

I write "neglect" with quotation marks because neither set of parents is particularly bad, nor could you really say that they're at fault for what their offspring did. Young Jimmy Wilson's parents in I Accuse My Parents are often drunk and irresponsible, but they're never abusive. And Jimmy is actually a pretty good kid. His criminal activity mostly involves delivering and receiving packages for the owner of a nightclub where a girl he's trying to impress is the lead singer. Jimmy is never directly informed that their contents are illegal or ill-gotten. Jimmy doesn't even realize what is going on until near the end of the movie.

This situation is even more ludicrous in the case of The Violent Years' Paula Parkins. Paula's father is a newspaper chief and her mother is often busy with her charity work. For heaven's sake, dad is working like just about any other '50s father and mom is raising money for charity! How is this neglect? Paula is able to visit her father at the office and is given a warm welcome while mom usually seems to be around the house. Her parents obviously love her and are extremely generous. In fact, at one point Paula is given a blank check just in case the boy with whom Paula is about to go on date can't cover the evening's costs. Apparently her parents' worst offenses against her are that dad always gives her a new watch for her birthday that is often delivered by one of his reporters and mom always gets her a new car. Mike and the 'bots often remark on the truly "hellish life" Paula leads.

Unlike Jimmy, it turns out that Paula is a rotten apple from the start and is actually the leader of a gang of female hoodlums. Immediately after receiving the check and seeing mom out the door, Paula picks up the phone and arranges their next heist; the armed robbery of a gas station. Following the robbery, miscellaneous crimes ensue, including an attack on a man and his girlfriend. The girlfriend is left tied up with strips of her own dress (the girls need to learn better knot tying techniques since the girlfriend is able to escape within minutes) while the man is dragged into the forest and is further "attacked". Although this is an exploitation film, it was still released in 1956 and still had to get past the Hays Office. Thus, the nature of the attack is obvious but is never explicitly spelled out. However, it's not ruled out that Paula's "delicate condition" (I love '50s euphemisms) at the end of the film may be the result.

Although the gang is supposed to be the cause of a reign of terror, most of the film's running time is taken up with padding: the cops' inability to trace the robbers, Paula's use of her father's inside sources to discover where the police will be setting up traps for the gang, a pajama party, etc. All this time the film tries, and completely fails, to convince us that Paula became a criminal because of her parents. Her motivations seem to have less to do with uninvolved parents and more with thrill-seeking.

The climax of the film occurs when the woman to whom the girls sell their stolen goods gives them a job from a "foreign interest". Apparently this foreign interest is willing to pay a significant amount of money for the gang to vandalize a few schoolrooms. They are even told that they shouldn't go easy on any US flags they may find. This being the mid-fifties, it's pretty obvious that the unseen party is meant to be some sort of communist group. I'm not exactly fond of communism, but even I find it hilarious that the fact that the girls are willing to take a job from the Reds is meant to show that they have become truly irredeemable. It's also nonsensical. Why would communist infiltrators actually pay to have schoolrooms vandalized? The girls' contact is a small time fence that buys any jewelry they steal; why would she even have communist contacts? It goes without saying that the mystery commies are never heard from again.

The extremely tame trashing of the schoolroom includes knocking over chairs, throwing a globe out a window, throwing books on the floor, and *gasp* erasing the chalkboard (fiends!). I assume that the film's budget could only afford two panes of candy glass for the girls to break. Just as one of them goes to lay her hands on Old Glory, the cops arrive. The gang starts a shootout with the cops (over vandalism?), which results in the deaths of a cop and two of the girls. (Raise your hand if you knew that the girl who was about to destroy the flag was the first to get shot.) [Correction: on a second viewing of the movie, I realized that the one who was going to damage the flag was the second one to be shot. The first was the one that hated school.] The Violent Years taught me that you can take a fatal blast to the gut from a shotgun without getting any blood on your white shirt.

Paula and the other surviving gang member make a break for their contact's house. The contact is horrified that the girls killed a cop and threatens to call the police... with very predictable results. Eventually Paula and the other girl end up in another car chase, they crash into a storefront window, and the other girl is killed. Paula is treated for her wounds, after which she is tried for her crimes and is sentenced to life in prison. A short while later, Paula's parents visit her in the prison hospital where she cries that she doesn't want her child to be born in a place like that. Once she comes due, she gives birth to a healthy baby girl. Since this is a 1950s exploitation movie, the audience has to see that Paula gets her just desserts; she dies during childbirth for no apparent reason.

It is at this point that, with no small measure of despair, the viewer notices that there are still about 10 minutes or so left in the movie/MST3K episode. Now The Violent Years is not a long movie. According to IMDB, the film originally ran for about 65 minutes. The MST3K episode had to include the short A Young Man's Fancy (1952) just to meet the usual episode running time. That means that the film is about to end with a glut of padding that represents nearly 15 to 20% of the film's total length. This is pretty common in b-movies where the filmmakers were forced to insert last minute material into their movies to get them up to the 60+ minute running time that was typical for feature length films of the period.

In a monologue that could only have been written by Ed Wood, the judge denies the right of Paula's parents to take custody of her orphaned daughter, relegating her to a state home instead. The judge lectures the parents in a long and rambling discourse on parental responsibility, the importance of religion, and the need to discipline one's children (which includes the use of the "old fashioned woodshed"!). During this scene, the viewer is subjected to a montage of stock footage as well as highlights from all the gang's crimes (the aforementioned attack on the man and his girlfriend is given extra attention here). I hadn't noticed how much padding was spread throughout the film until the movie itself showed that all its exciting scenes could be compressed into a five minute time span. Only Mike and the 'bots make the movie bearable.

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